China reformers set to crush old guard: Pragmatists in the Communist Party plan to drop ideology and use market forces to maintain a hold on power, says Raymond Whitaker, Asia Editor

TO THE rest of the world, to millions of their countrymen, and possibly to most of the 1,991 delegates themselves, the 14th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which begins in Peking today, seems an anachronism.

Inside the Great Hall of the People, the classic images of Communist domination - row upon row of blank-faced cadres, endless speeches, a giant hammer and sickle backdrop - will be on display, but a short walk away, past billboards advertising the consumer goods that have flooded China, is one of the world's busiest branches of McDonald's.

The crowds, better-dressed than they would be in Moscow, are taking little interest in the five-yearly congress. The party slogan they heed is the one that says, 'To get rich is glorious.'

Under the 'reform and opening up' economic policies pursued by China's supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping, the party's control of the economy has already been loosened considerably, and the 14th Congress will be told to give up more power. It will also approve personnel changes that may give reformists a significant majority in the party's highest reaches. The Communist monopoly of politics is another matter: the only disagreement is over the means of staying in power.

If the party is to survive the collapse of Communism almost everywhere except Cuba and a handful of East Asian states, it must deliver prosperity to China's 1.2 billion people, in the view of the 88-year-old Mr Deng and his supporters. They appear increasingly deaf to the complaints of hardliners that this is at the price of ideological bankruptcy.

The party has already distanced itself from the failure of Communism elsewhere by insisting that it espouses 'socialism with Chinese characteristics'. At this congress the theme will be updated to 'the socialist market economy'.

The conservatives sense that for the men Mr Deng wants to promote, economic growth has become an end in itself. China has already become the world's 10th largest exporter, overtaking South Korea, and the growth forecast for this year has just been revised from 7 to 12 per cent. In the southern enterprise zones, the economy is probably expanding at twice that rate.

As recently as last spring Mr Deng still felt sufficiently frustrated by the hardliners in the capital to make a public tour of the booming south, where he praised what was going on and urged faster economic liberalisation. Even then his opponents sought to prevent his message getting out, leading to predictions that the congress could result in little more than patched-up compromise.

But informed sources now say that in a series of unnoticed victories, starting with the summer Politburo meeting in the coastal resort of Beidaihe, where party leaders have their villas, and continuing with the preparatory meetings for the congress, the conservatives have been stifled. One source said he would be surprised if they got 'more than a few phrases' in the 10,000-word keynote speech today by Jiang Zemin, the general secretary.

At the 1987 congress, too, there was talk of the Long March generation giving way to a group of younger reformists. Economic improvements were already beginning to bear fruit. A speech by Zhao Ziyang, then general secretary, was full of plans for further liberalisation and political reform, by which he meant the greater separation of party and state.

All this was blown off course by the suppression of the 1989 democracy movement and the massacre in Tiananmen Square, outside the Great Hall of the People. In its wake, China suffered diplomatic ostracism from which it is only just recovering.

Mr Deng's conservative contemporaries, whom he thought he had thrust into retirement, tried to seize back the initiative. Mr Zhao was disgraced, while the economy suffered from a lurch back to centralism and a sharp squeeze on demand.

It has taken the reformists until now to recover the ground, and this time Mr Deng wants to make sure there is no turning back. The authority of the party, severely damaged by Tiananmen, will be weakened further as the founding generation dies off. Although there is little doubt that he would order the troops to shoot again if necessary, his successors cannot be expected to show similar resolve.

Hence the 'socialist market economy', a self-contradictory term designed to obscure the strategy of holding on to political power by abandoning ideology and allowing the economy to rip. It will probably be enough to prevent the Communist Party suddenly disappearing, but certainly ensures a vicious struggle for power after Mr Deng dies. Unless he is still alive to see it, the 15th party congress - if there is one - may be as different from its predecessors as this one is the same.

(Photograph omitted)